November is always a favourite month for rugby fans. The return of the Autumn Internationals warms even the coldest November day. So far we have already seen a brilliant clash between England and New Zealand, while Australia’s victory over Wales, their tenth straight, was an absolute epic encounter. That was just one weekend and we have a whole month of phenomenal encounters to lay witness to yet.
It is not just the fans that benefit from the Autumn Internationals, but the players and the coaches too. These are the fixtures where players can see if they can better the best in the world, while it also helps coaches address problems that need fixing. They also make for the perfect testing ground to try new players out; if they can stand out in the Autumn Internationals then they should become a mainstay in the side. So who are the players that will be hoping to make a permanent impression?
Rhys Webb (Wales)
Twelve months ago you would never have thought that Warren Gatland would need to look at alternative scrum halves. For years, Mike Phillips had been at the core of the Welsh side, Gatland’s game-plan was centred around him, but then he started to look sluggish, old and predictable during this year’s Six Nations, and the whole of Wales’ back line soon did the same leaving Gatland no choice but to turn to Rhys Webb.
When Webb was brought into the side he galvanised the Welsh attack, he brought a sense of urgency and pace that was lacking from the lethargic looking Wales side. His defensive work was also commended; his tackling was second to none.
Annoyingly for Webb he did not go on the summer tour of South Africa due to a knee injury. More frustrating for the Ospreys man was that Phillips managed to regain his position in the side. However, Webb’s scintillating form this season makes it highly unlikely that Gatland won’t give him an extended run out. Thus far in the Guinness Pro 12, Webb has treated himself to six tries in seven matches, while his try in Wales’ losing effort to Australia made for very nice viewing.
The 25-year-old may have just seven Wales caps, thanks in no small part to the brilliance of Phillips, and Dwayne Peel before him, but he knows that a good showing this November could cement his place in the line-up for years to come.
Webb did well in the 54 minutes he played against Australia and it seems more than likely that he will feature prominently in Wales’ fixtures with New Zealand and South Africa. Webb could be the catalyst behind a famous Wales win against a top Southern Hemisphere side – they are 114/1 with betfair.com to go on from now and win the World Cup, where only the most formidable of opponents await.
Malakai Fekito (New Zealand)
Quite frankly the boy is a beast. Fekitoa earned his first cap for the All Blacks against England this summer, just four months after debuting in Super Rugby. If that doesn’t highlight just how talented this boy is then what does?
The 22-year-old has taken to international rugby remarkably well, scoring twice in his first seven Tests, the second of which was scored against Australia, giving New Zealand victory in the Bledisloe Cup with two seconds left on the clock.
Like all Tongan-born centres, Fekitoa is muscle, muscle and more muscle. The Highlanders star is extremely aggressive on the pitch; half measures don’t exist with this guy. His high-octane running style is supported by his unbridled pace, which, as we witnessed with his performances in the summer, allow him to burst through strong tackles and squeeze through tiny gaps.
To say he is just a runner would be a gross injustice, his side step is up there with the best of them, his hands are deft and glue-like, and like all Tongan stars, his tackling is warrior like.
Semesa Rokoduguni (England)
In the week build up before the New Zealand clash Semesa Rokoduguni reached near celebrity status with many newspapers charting his incredible course from Fiji to the England national squad, via the Armed Forces.
The 27-year-old made his England debut in that match against New Zealand, and while he didn’t do anything worth writing home about, the promise was there. The Bath winger weighs in at over 16 stone but has that lovely Southern Hemisphere melange of bulk and pace. Despite being a big unit he is blisteringly quick, while he has the grace of something akin to Strictly Come Dancing not Twickenham.
Last season, Rokoduguni beat more players than any other player in the Aviva Premiership; Stuart Lancaster will be hoping that by the end of the Autumn Internationals that Rokoduguni would have been the player to have beaten the most of his international brothers in arms. Another refreshing trait that Rokoduguni possesses is the fact that he is a winger who can defend, a job he does with little fuss and little problem.
Sean McMahon (Australia)
You already get the feeling that 20-year-old Sean McMahon is destined for great things. Michael Cheika wouldn’t have brought him North at such a spritely age if he wasn’t.
Besides winning his first cap for his country in a good showing against Wales, McMahon has also captained the Australian Under-20 side to the IRB Junior World Championship and represented his country in the Sevens at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
The flanker is very good in the breakdown and is also an adept ball carrier, but what really sets McMahon apart is his football skills. He is a brilliant footballer and you can expect his in-game kicking to really trouble oppositions. Here is a guy who can carve open an oppositions defence with just one flick of a boot, that’s an advantage that not all teams possess, so it is little wonder that Cheika couldn’t wait to unleash him.
These are just four of the hungry players who are looking to solidify their claims for a starting berth, and as we all know, hungry players make the better players.
Who else do you think belongs on this list?